“Man, despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication and his many accomplishments, owes his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”

This anonymous quote is especially noteworthy this summer, as about the same amount of rain in June is affecting field crops much differently 100 miles or so from here than it is locally. Both regions–Northern NY and the region south of Lake Ontario both north and south of I-90 (NY State Thruway)–generally got between 5 and 6 inches of rain in June after a moderately to very dry May. But what havoc they wreaked on crops differs greatly depending on soil type. In much of Northern NY the soils are glacial tills without a lot of clay content. Oh, there are areas especially along Lake Champlain and parts of NW Franklin County where there are some clay loam soils but much of the crop production is on lighter soils. Yesterday I made my annual trip to Cornell University to speak on crop production to a group of vet college graduates from all over North America and a few foreign countries. My trip took me just East of the Finger Lakes so not into the heaviest soils but it was obvious that the corn crop wasn’t as good as much of it in this region. A lot of corn there was knee-high to waist-high, whereas around here the farmers who got their corn planted in May have corn over their head for the past week. I used to call heavy clay loams “Sunday soils” because they were too wet to work on Saturday and too dry on Monday, but just right on Sunday–the traditional “day of rest”. This was an an exaggeration of course, but the point was that tilling a clay loam when it was wet could lead to problems that would persist for the entire season.

At any rate, what’s worse than a 6″ layer of touchy topsoil? Less than 6″ of topsoil! I encountered this in Illinois a few years ago, Corn Belt territory where we often think that the topsoil is several feet deep–and sometimes it’s that and more. But on this huge dairy farm they were practicing minimum tillage–no moldboard plowing–because the layer of topsoil was so shallow that moldboard plowing would bring up the coarse sand that underlaid the 3 or 4 inches of topsoil. Not surprisingly this soil didn’t handle droughty conditions well at all!

Ev

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: July 14, 2015, 11:28 am | No Comments »

02  Jun
Transitions

My long-time GP (20+ years) recently retired, and the family practice to which The Bride and I matriculate asked if we wanted to remain with that practice. We said we wanted to stay there since we always felt we were well cared for, even if it’s in Plattsburgh, almost a 3-hour drive now that we’ve retired. The next question: Would Ilike a nurse practitioner or a real doctor? (“real doctor” wasn’t the term used but it might as well have been). I said that I’d like a doctor since I don’t want anyone practicing on me. Besides, one time our GP was away and I had to see the nurse practitioner because I chose that inopportune time to come down with shingles. I went into her office and she asked me how far the rash extended since it was obviously somewhat south of my waistline, which is as far as she’d asked to disrobe. So I showed her, and I’m not sure that’s what she had intended.

My first visit to our new GP was in April, and he walked in carrying an IPod and stethoscope. That’s it. I told him this would take some getting used to, that I was used to this Yoda-like person barely 5 feet tall shuffling in with a thick manila folder containing all my records for the past 20+ years, then sitting down surrounded by stacks of manila folders of all her other patients. Her notes (from over 40 visits) were all in long-hand, never transcribed so to find a piece of lab data she’d pore back through page after page of charts, reports, etc. She was wonderful, caring, and all a person could ask for in a GP. Her office staff simply adored her. But in technological terms she was so “yesterday”–not at all surprising since she was nearly 80. I’m sure we’ll like our new GP, but it’s like starting all over and not just for us since he commented that all her notes were in longhand and therefore not easily accessible, especially for a family practice as large and active as this one.

The point of all this–and I’m sure by now you’re wondering: Which are you? Still in the “longhand” age or have you moved into the 21st century and are relying on databases, computerized records, reporting information in such a way that it can be used to evaluate your farm business? In some way I’m “preaching to the choir” since you’re reading this post on-line, while the people I’d really like to reach are those who still don’t use the internet.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: June 2, 2015, 9:52 pm | No Comments »

I just read where a new type of earworm is making its way north from South and Central America where it’s been devastating a variety of crops. The insect, Helicoverpa armigera, is a cousin of the earworm but is potentially much more damaging, attacking not only corn but soybeans, cereals, vegetables and flowers as well. The bad news: Insecticides aren’t effective on this critter, as it’s developed resistance to all classes of insecticides that have been tried on it. Almost $1 billion of U.S. crops are in the areas most susceptible to H. armigera, many times this depending on how extensive its eventual spread.

The good news: The one control that seems to work is crops genetically engineered to contain the Bt gene. Bt cotton resists this insect pest, and entomologists think that Bt corn and Bt soybeans will be similarly resistant. Something to keep in mind as some in society are in favor of outlawing all genetically engineered crops. (I think that those of us in agriculture would do well to start referring to these crops as “genetically enhanced”, because that’s just what they are.) Not a new idea of course, but the timing seems right.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: May 9, 2015, 11:39 am | No Comments »

Last week I spoke at the annual meeting of a California-based dairy nutrition company. The meeting was at the plush Fountainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach; the temp there was 85F and I was wishing they’d had the meeting there in February when we were freezing even in our winter quarters in Virginia! When I came into Extension work in the mid-1960s we had about 30,000 dairy cows on 1000 dairy farms in Northeastern NY. There were half a dozen feed companies with a total of about 10 nutritional consultants serving these farms-all employed by one of the feed companies. so, a couple hundred potential clients for each consultant. It’s no wonder that some farms didn’t see their feed company consultant for months on end. At the Miami Beach meeting each nutritionist reported having clients with a total of at least 50,000 cows, but with the typical number of cows per farm in the western U.S. it’s likely that the nutritionist could visit each of his/her dairies at least a couple times per month. And he nutritionist is employed by the farmer, not by a feed company. But the biggest difference is what computers have done to feed programming and ration balancing. Even if the nutritionist can’t be on the dairy in person there’s information at hand via computer to permit timely adjustments in rations or other herd management chores. Back in the 1960s one of the jobs of Extension educators was to work with farmers on feed programs since there was a big difference in ability between the various company-employed representatives. That’s not the case anymore; computerized feed programs have greatly leveled the playing field, and Extension folks can do things a lot more productive that chasing around after dairy ration challenges. Times have certainly changed, and for the better!

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: April 19, 2015, 10:58 pm | No Comments »

26  Feb
Winter woes

This is the second cold, miserable winter both in Northern NY (where we spend most of the year) and in central Virginia, where we supposedly go to spend the winter away from snow and ice. How well is that working? Not very! Last week it was below zero, the first sub-zero reading in this area in 15 years. And I got up this morning to 6″ of fresh snow–actually 5″ of snow over 1″ of slush since road surfaces were warm enough to melt the first of the snow. This was quite a shock since at 11 PM there was nary a flake and the forecast was for an inch or so–maybe. We’ve had more snow in central Virginia than they’ve had in Northern NY—-weird. What was now a cold snap is now the Polar Vortex, and some climatologists say that we’ll see more of this due to the melting of Arctic ice. It seems strange that warmer temps at the North Pole results in colder winters in the Northeast. Meanwhile, Alaskans are basking in what for them is blissfully warm temps–even in Fairbanks.

It will be interesting to see what impact this weather has on perennial forages. Last year we saw serious winter injury on some forage grasses including orchardgrass and tall fescue. Not consistent–spotty, fortunately. But last year the cold was accompanied by serious icing in some areas, and I think ice may be worse for grasses than the cold. We’ll see, since much of the Northeast has been blanketed with snow almost continuously for the past two months. If we do see injury this spring we may have to start re-evaluating forage choices and management. The temptation will be to avoid knee-jerk reactions while not ignoring the facts on the ground.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: February 26, 2015, 4:15 pm | No Comments »

06  Jan
Foggy crystal ball

It’s been said that an economist is a person who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today. I feel somewhat the same way in trying to predict fertilizer prices for the coming year. For several falls now I’ve tried to give the farmers who read and actually may act on what I say an idea of what will happen to fertilizer prices in the coming months. I didn’t do so in fall 2014 because the international situation was so up in the air that anything I might say would be a wild guess, not a prediction. On the one hand U.S. grain prices were very low and it appeared that Corn Belt farmers weren’t going to spend a lot of $ on fertilizer, unless prices for the 2015 crop were likely to improve considerably. Then in November there were floods at two Russian potash mine that are responsible for over 3% of global potash production. (Russia, Canada and Belarus are the world’s three largest potash producers.) All production from these two mines may be lost. Add to this that China still was playing its cards close to its vest, and that nation is a huge importer of potash. Put all these factors in a pot, stir, and what get is certainly NOT a clear indication of near-term prices.

Prices for phosphates and nitrogen products are a bit more predictable, if only compared to those of potash. It appears that the best prices for UAN were last fall, and farmers who didn’t order 2015 needs before the holidays will pay higher prices. As with potash, China will have a sizable influence on urea prices, but as an exporter, not an importer. If China starts selling aggressively (as it has in the past) then urea prices could be OK. Otherwise, world demand for urea is already picking up as farmers start planning for 2015 spring planting, and there won’t be many bargains out there.

This news isn’t as bad for dairy farmers as it is for cash crop operators since dairy farms have a constant source of highly plant-available nutrients provided each and every day by their livestock.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: January 6, 2015, 8:28 pm | No Comments »

Someone said that there’s no cure for high prices like high prices; one of our former Secretaries of Agriculture noted that if egg prices get high enough even the roosters start laying them. We’re about to find this out once again regarding milk prices. Not to mix a metaphor, dairy farmers have been living in hog heaven of late what with plummeting grain prices and soaring milk prices. The combination of $25 milk, $10 soybeans and $4.00 corn—sweet! For a while at least. The U.S. All-Milk price will drop below $20 in the next month or two and it might be quite a while before we see $20+ prices again, most likely not for at least a year. Grain prices should stay low for awhile so it’s not anything like the horrible condition not many years ago when the price of farm milk was about half what it’s been in recent months and grain prices higher than they currently are. The VIX Index is a Wall Street term that measures the expected volatility of any of several U.S. stock exchanges. A high VIX is generally considered worrisome since stock market investors–a notably worrisome lot during the best of times–absolutely hate uncertainty. If there were a VIX for milk prices the warning bells would be ringing!

There’s nothing the individual dairy farmer can do about price volatility, but plenty that can be done to limit its impact on his/her farm. For the past year or so I’ve been encouraging farmers to take advantage of the good times (and if $25 milk doesn’t qualify as that, what does?) to make the type of capital investments–equipment and/or land improvement–that will continue to be profitable when prices undergo the slump we all new was going to occur. The best managers will continue to make a profit, even with milk at $18.00, but they won’t make nearly as much. As for those who have been barely keep their financial heads above water, I’m afraid there will be some very tough months ahead.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: November 3, 2014, 8:47 pm | No Comments »

09  Sep
Global whatever

I’m not sure if it’s global warming, climate change or something else, but recent predictions suggest that farmers on the Left Coast may be in the early stages of either a 10-year (highly likely) or 30-year (50-50 chance they say) mega-drought. Southern California and areas east of there will be most affected; this means mostly metro areas in California but some key dairy farming areas in New Mexico and Arizona. But even where the drought isn’t the worst, it appears that the severity and duration of the drought will result in long-term, maybe even permanent changes in agriculture. Less corn, a lot less alfalfa, and more nut orchards since nuts need a fraction of the water as do forage crops.

The SW drought may result in the exodus of dairies in the affected regions–some to move to other areas including the Dakotas, but perhaps we’ll simply wind up with fewer dairy cows. Short-term this wouldn’t be a problem since there’s plenty of supply to meet demand. Long-term it’s tough to tell because of the push-pull of two trends: U.S. population will continue to increase which normally would be positive for demand. but much of the population growth will be in the Hispanic population, and a significant portion of Hispanics are lactose-intolerant. This would suggest that per capita consumption of dairy products–not one of the brighter spots in dairy statistics–may continue to be a problem area.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: September 9, 2014, 12:38 pm | No Comments »

This is in part a follow-up to a post of a couple of months ago when I was noting the paucity of standability and other information on corn hybrids available from university trials. Over the past year or so I’ve been conducting an email correspondence with a semi-retired plant breeder who used to work for on of the major seed companies. He’s not at all convinced at how important this data is, suggesting that much of it is available from seed companies. He’s particularly down on university alfalfa trials, and wonders if they’re even worth doing. And at least with alfalfa he may have a point since there’s been so little progress in alfalfa yield over the decades, and almost no universities test the varieties for forage quality so even if there are differences we don’t know it. I have absolutely NO idea of the forage quality of the alfalfa varieties grown now vs. 10-20 years ago, but expect that any differences are minimal. And my plant breeder buddy notes with good reason that stating the level of disease resistance of each variety or cultivar is essentially worthless since all modern varieties are rated as “High” or “Very High” in resistance to multiple diseases. I doubt that farmers pay any attention to these ratings when selecting varieties.

Corn hybrid selection is a lot more involved that alfalfa variety selection because of the differences in maturity as well as real differences in disease resistance, particularly to Northern Corn Leaf Blight. Then there’s the matter of leafy vs. BMR vs. conventional hybrids, kernel texture, digestibility, etc. My friend claims that much of this information can be secured from the seed companies, and this is where we differ since the seed companies do a fine job of evaluation their own hybrids but not competitive hybrids…not surprisingly! With the notable exception of BMR he’s right when it comes to NDF digestibility since there’s not much difference among hybrids when they’re grown under similar soil and climatic conditions. Where we differ is yield: He thinks that the seed companies are self-monitoring since they wouldn’t release any hybrid that wasn’t competitive for yield. My comment to him is that I’ve seen some real “corn dogs” both in the field and in university trials–hybrids yielding not much more than 50% of the top yielding hybrids in the trial. Fortunately these are the exceptions, but there’s a lot bigger difference in yield than in forage quality, which is why I think that university trials–at least for corn hybrids–are still useful.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: August 6, 2014, 1:43 pm | No Comments »

01  Jul
Weather woes

I’ve often said that bad weather can make even the best farmer look bad, while good weather can make a poor farmer look–well, a lousy farmer looks bad in spite of the weather.

But I digress. I don’t know if we can attribute it to climate change, the first hints of an El Nino, or just luck of the draw, but weather sure is wreaking havoc in several farming areas. I just got an email from a dairy nutritionist in Nebraska inquiring about the availability of very early corn hybrids because tornadoes and heavy rains are causing farmers to replant corn (for silage). And a friend in Minnesota, a plant breeder, reports that heavy rains there are flooding spring-planted crops. It’s not that bad in the Northeast, but that depends on the location, especially when a thunderstorm drops several inches on one farm while not touching farms in the next community. I remember one day sitting in my office during hay crop harvest when all of a sudden it started raining in torrents. We had several employees involved in chopping and hauling the crop, so I went hauling up there in my car expecting the worst. But when I got there, only a few miles north of the farm, it was bone dry, the sun was shining, and the guys were wondering if I’d just washed my car since it was still wet!

There’s nothing that can be done to change the weather, but good crop managers seem to make the best of a bad situation. They have the ability to get things done not only right, but quickly. The move from baling forages as dry hay to chopping them for silage made a huge difference, reducing weather risk from several days to about half a day. Especially with second and subsequent harvests, mowing early in the morning often can mean chopping that afternoon. Yet I continue to see field after field of brown windrows, wet yet again from the latest shower, the farmer waiting for enough dry weather to be ready to bale. Many of these same farms already put up corn silage, so the move from dry hay to hay silage means a different head for the chopper plus more silage capacity. Not simple or cheap–but neither is trying to make dry hay in the humid Northeast!

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: July 1, 2014, 3:03 pm | No Comments »

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